The marketers have spoken; “Gin Season” is upon us. Gin used to be simple, a category with few options and no seasons. However, these days, there are thousands of bottle available in the category and marketing ploys are literally raining down from the heavens. It’s a lot to make sense of. So, Neat Pour consulted some experts: Angus Winchester, Paul Gustings, and Megan Daniel.
Winchester is one of the spirit’s most prominent advocates; after building a name for himself as a spirit educator, he is in the process of opening a bar of his own. Megan Daniel took the reins as Bar Manager at San Francisco’s gin Mecca, Whitechapel shortly after opening and has racked up the accolades ever since. Paul Gustings is Head Bartender of New Orleans’ institution Tujague’s. His birthplace in the Netherlands and curmudgeonly disposition combined to inspire a lifelong love and advocacy for the spirit.
By several estimates, there are currently over 6000 different gins available for retail purchase. So, where does a curious drinker–or a manager building a bar program–begin?
Winchester’s preferences lean to the more classic, juniper-driven expression of the spirit. Accordingly, he is partial to the “Trinity” Tanqueray, Beefeater, Plymouth as a starting point.
“Gin and juniper are inherently linked. Classical gin, legally and practically, always had the primary tastes of juniper. The juniper berry almost has magical capabilities; it works with any flavor that you want to throw in with it,” he opined. “A lot of times, people don’t like gin because they don’t like juniper. Some people love these new gins because they don’t taste like a classic gin.”
On the other side of the spectrum is Daniel’s Whitechapel, an establishment built on a roster of “new gins.” Daniel believes that the drinker’s choice of styles is just a matter of taste. “I definitely love my juniper forward gin, but now there is such a vast array of gins out there; I love them all,” she elaborated. “It really depends what your palate is. Some people want all the oak in their chardonnay; some people want no oak. One is not right or wrong.”
Then, there is Gustings. Ever the contrarian, he prefers a third route. “What do I look for? Well, I’m not a big fan of London Dry,” he noted. “Personally, I prefer sweeter gins like Old Tom and Dutch Genever.”
The Rise of Local Gin
Local is all the rage in the F&B world these days. Gin is no exception, but the spirit is definitely a late comer to the game. Winchester explained, “We used to talk about how you didn’t get local gins. Making a spirit like whiskey locally was standard— you use the leftover harvest, whereas gin required being connected to a global network.”
Simply, all of the eclectic botanicals required to make gin could not be found in any single given spot. Instead the varied ingredients needed to be shipped from multiple locations around the world to the distillery. For nearly three centuries England controlled the world’s oceans and shipping fleets. One benefit of naval dominance was the island nation’s ability to navigate botanicals through shipping lanes and back to London with ease. Consequently, England established herself as the primary producer and exporter of the gin.
However, times have changed. As Winchester noted, “Local is also an important millennial quality.” No longer constricted by nautical power structures, distillers are able to make gin all over the world. However, the easier transport of exotic botanicals did not discourage the new school of gin producers from adding their own local flourishes.
The Rise of Contemporary Gin
The emergent wave of local gins forms the vanguard of the new gin movement. More and more, backbars are dominated by bottles of “contemporary” (formerly “new western”) gin. While these spirits contain enough juniper to technically qualify as a gin, the classic elements take a back seat to some unorthodox flavors.
For example, Daniel noted that, “California has been doing really, really well recently.” She is impressed with the San Miguel Southwestern Gin from San Diego’s Old Harbor Distilling which employ lime, cucumber, cilantro, and sage as botanicals. (For the truly adventurous, she recommends checking out Moletto, a tomato distillate gin with “a cool, funky passion fruit coming through it.”)
Winchester is skeptical of many of these products. “There’s a huge explosion going on right, but [if the juniper is secondary] is it really gin?”
Gustings also offered his signature, blunt take on the category. “Go and explore, but remember that just because a company is small doesn’t always mean it’s good,” he quipped. “Small just means they don’t make a lot.”
Regardless of there opinions on the new offerings, none of the three experts expect the boom to last forever. “It’s a bubble,” stated Winchester. “Eventually cost will drive people away also.”
Daniel noted that another problem is that many small gin distillers would actually prefer to be whiskey distillers. Unfortunately, whiskey takes a long time to age and the distillers need to produce something that pays the bills while their whiskey sits in barrels.
“It’s going to be similar to [the boom] everyone making whiskey and then a lot of them stopped,” she elaborated. “I definitely see a lot of whiskey distillers throwing gins out that are not very refined. But there also some wonderful ones out there. It changes product to product but that’s true of any spirit. It will be interesting to see who sticks around.”
Daniel also warned those new to the category to avoid the increasingly popular chill-filtered gins. “Chill filtering pulls out a lot of the oils and loses the mouth-feel. You’ll notice how gin sometimes almost louches; that’s the oils coming out.”
What To Look For
So, with all these facts established, what traits should you look for when buying a gin?
Winchester looks for consistency. “If the bottle has a batch number, that’s fine for your whiskies because you’re looking for something unique, but in gin you want consistency,” he said. “A lot of distillers will tell you that London Dry is the hardest spirit to make because you’re extracting from the same eleven varietals batch after batch.”
Daniel prefers something “up-forward with lots of botanicals. Especially with California style, they’ll pick one botanical and make it more forward.”
And, Gustings, also stressed his affinity for less common gins. “Stay away from what people think is a good gin, London Dry. Be more adventurous. Buy an Old Tom Gin,” he suggested. “Don’t dump it into a G&T. Try it straight.”
No article about gin would be complete without mention of that most gin concoction, the Martini. As Gustings pointed out, “A gin martini is redundant. A standard Martini is one part gin, two parts vermouth, five drops orange bitters, lemon twist. Not a whole lot that you can do with that.”
Daniel follows almost identical specs. She prefers two parts gin to one part dry vermouth with only two dashes of orange bitters and a lemon twist.
Winchester prefers his as a 50:50 ratio of Tanqueray to Noilly with Ango Orange and a lemon twist. Express and discard. Like the other experts, he considers the beverage a litmus test of a bartender’s technical skill. He keeps a close eye on variables including preparation, type of gin, dryness, and garnish.